December 2013 | 

Beyond Coaching: The Benefits of Real-Time Professional Feedback

Beyond Coaching

One of the highlights of Wharton’s two-week Executive Development Program (EDP) is a realistic strategy simulation in which participants work in teams on complex business challenges, face ethical dilemmas, and grapple with real cross-team tensions. And they do it all under the watchful eyes of trained facilitators whose observations deepen the learning process.

“Many of the executives who come to EDP have been through leadership training before. Their organizations may have sent them to learn how to be a more effective leader, or they may have worked with a coach,” says Peter Fader, Wharton marketing professor and faculty director of the program. “We know they’ve had these experiences, so we build on them with something unique. The High-Performing Teams framework was designed to reinforce the business acumen taught in the program, but it is very realistic. Tension and emotions can run high as they compete. It’s an amazing petri dish for everything that can possibly go wrong.”

Anastasia Voutsinas, the associate director of EDP, adds, “The simulation itself is unique, but there are three distinct layers that create an intense learning experience. First, EDP participants represent a global community, coming from different cultures, geographic regions, industries, disciplines, and backgrounds. The teams are composed to reflect that diversity, so while the broad objective is to perform well, they are also gaining a global perspective.

“Second, the teams are observed throughout the simulation by Learning Accelerators who come from different schools at the University of Pennsylvania, including Government, Education, and Anthropology. They bring a multi-disciplinary perspective, have a strong understanding of team dynamics, and are trained to use a framework to evaluate individuals and teams in each round of the simulation.”

Observer Derek Newberry notes, “We all know that you learn by doing. It’s one thing to sit in a three hour lecture, and another to be in a realistic simulation and apply what you learned. As a facilitator, I work with one team over the two weeks and the level of personal interaction is deep. We see things the executives don’t because time is short. They are busy making quick decisions and often don’t recognize how their behavior and actions work for or against them. After each round, we get together and discuss what happened and how it reflected on the team performance and financial performance. It’s a rich level of analysis.”

“We also get involved in resolving team conflict,” says facilitator Madeline Boyer. “We can help the executives take a break and air grievances without impacting time management during the simulation. Successful teams learn to manage conflict. Teams that falter ignore it. The better they get at resolving it, and improving each others’ behaviors, the more successful they are.”

The architect of the High-Performing Teams (HPT) component is Mario Moussa. He explains that the process is designed to develop a reflective mindset that helps participants during the program and when they are back at work. “It gives them the opportunity to reflect on leadership and teamwork and to integrate course content. Observers know the content they have been discussing in the classroom and help make connections between what they are learning and the real-time experience they are having on their team.”

Sanath Kumar, who recently attended EDP, commented on the intensity of the simulation: “We were a large group of high achievers, Type A personalities. So whatever we do we get competitive. But it was still surprising how intense and fast-paced the experience was. And having a facilitator watch it all, take notes, and give us feedback was very interesting. It’s common to get indirect peer feedback in our work environment, but this was an outside observer who could observe our interactions in real time; and provide feedback on how we could get better.”

Kumar, global marketing director at BASF Corporation, was chosen by his EDP team as CEO. He had a one-on-one discussion with the facilitator after the program ended, to help process the experience. “She said my sense of humor eased some of the stress when the situation got intense, and she also helped me see some other ways I could have led certain situations. I try to use the feedback as much as I can in my day-to-day work environment. It was a great learning experience.”